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The NOT So Terrible Two's

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You have a crazy person in the house. She's screaming one minute, throwing herself on the floor the next -- and ten seconds later she's giving you an angelic smile.

That angelic smile is a welcome sight, but what's with the sudden bursts of temper? It's just normal behavior in the life of a toddler. The so-called "terrible twos," a period that can stretch from the late ones to the early threes, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics -- is a momentous time in the life of a child.

toddler lying down and crying

"It's basically a struggle between parents and kids over control," says Benjamin Siegel, M.D., professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. "Expect kids to test you out. Expect that kids will lose control. Hopefully you as parents will not lose control."

Tantrums Demystified

What sets off these explosions? Any number of things, including frustration in communicating, overstimulation, breaks in routine, and being just plain tired. Hearing "no, you can't touch that" one too many times is often a trigger.

"Kids that age need and want to touch everything," says Dr. Siegel. "In the earlier stages, they put everything in their mouth. In the toddler stage, they're out cruising and walking and exploring. Their job is to touch things and to manipulate their environment." Essentially, toddlers have desires like everyone else -- and they want what they want right now. The difference is that, "unlike adults, toddlers cannot delay gratification, which makes them easily frustrated," says Dr. Siegel. "When needs are not met, they explode. What parents have to realize is that it's all a normal part of development, just par for the course for a toddler."

As parents, setting appropriate limits is an essential tool in the battle of wills. "Kids need to know what their boundaries are, to protect themselves and protect others," Dr. Siegel says. "Parents need to understand that discipline is not punishment; it's teaching."

Minimizing Meltdowns

So how to head off tantrums at the pass? Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

  • Make your home child's-play friendly. In other words, keep breakables or valuables tucked safely away so you don't have to say "no" to her repeatedly, which can only increase her frustration.

  • Keep them occupied. Give them plenty of things to play with so that their explorations don't take them into dangerous or forbidden territory. That doesn't mean investing a small fortune in toys; toddlers amuse themselves with spoons, plastic lids, and other everyday household items. Toddlers also love having their own space to play and keep their toys.

  • Maintain a schedule. It's important to set up routines and rituals that are relatively predictable so even little ones have a sense of control over their world.

  • Offer choices so your toddler feels empowered. Instead of saying, "It's time to change clothes now," ask, "Would you like to the green shirt or the blue one?"

  • Hold on. If a toddler tantrum is in full swing, sometimes all you can do is hug your child until she calms down. She may, in fact, be scaring herself with her temper. Otherwise, use redirection (help guide her energies to a different task) or distraction. And know that when the clouds part, sweetness and light will reign again, at least for a while.

    "When kids crash they often want to held and cuddled -- that's one of the very nice aspects of this wonderful, engaging age," says Dr. Siegel. "These really are the terrific twos: It's a time of discovery, a time of fun and exploration."

  • Be there. Raising a toddler takes time and energy, and it keeps you on your toes. If you're home with your baby, try being really with her; save the computer or PDA for naps or sleep time and avoid using TV as a babysitter. Above all, have patience. If instead of seeing a child who's trying to drive you crazy (he isn't), you can see within the struggles a kid who's aching to develop autonomy and explore the world, you'll have a wonderful experience.

This information is not a substitute for personal medical, psychiatric or psychological advice.

 
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